Political Assimilation

We’ve had quite a few flabbergasted mentions over the months of the shocking recognition that so many Mennonites vote Republican, wondering helplessly what to do about their ignorant collusion with oppression, and Tim mentioned in his post on Gregory Boyd the converse fear that the new generation of Mennonites and their teachers (at least) have similarly sold out to a left-wing political program and forsaken the gospel for social activism. Both fears, I admit, seem to me deeply right. Whether by overlooking the horrors of war and sidestepping the political example of our crucified Lord, or by flattening salvation to a social phenomenon and forgetting that the truth of Christ transcends every political concern, Mennonites of all political stripes have given up the principle of nonconformity that’s necessary for the church to be the church.

That’s my contention: that the problem across the board is that we’ve lost the principle of nonconformity. And more specifically, we’ve forgotten that nonconformity is a theological principal. It’s not that we refuse to conform to this or that bad policy, but that we refuse to conform to the world, this fallen, deathly, blasphemous, and violent world, this world whose goodness has been disfigured by sin. And we are joined instead not to justice or righteousness or fairness in the abstract, but to Jesus Christ: ‘joined’ as an apprentice to her master, ‘joined’ as a child to her mother, ‘joined’ as any person to her own spirit and power. Being so joined to God passes judgment on every political program, certainly, because it reshapes the notion of the political itself. No political agenda is untouched by the good news of Jesus’ resurrection–because Jesus is resurrected as Lord–and every form of praise and discipleship becomes a political act. Judgment on so-called conservatives: by ‘conserving’ what remains wrapped up in the powers of violence, you serve the prince of darkness rather than the prince of peace. Judgment on so-called radicals: by preaching justice rather than Jesus,* you cut the world off from the root of true life and condemn it to self-destruction, meaninglessness, and hell.

Of course, this suggestion seems sectarian to the right and absolutist to the left. But this is precisely what I mean: nonconformity to the world. We must constantly and seriously consider in what ways our commitment to Christ pronounces judgment on every political commitment–for Christ alone is Lord.

* This is no better, of course, than preaching Jesus rather than justice–as if the two could truly be split. But it must be admitted that the radical ‘program’ often quite explicitly renounces actually preaching Jesus, thinking justice a near enough equivalent.

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10 Responses to “Political Assimilation”

  1. Celeste Says:

    Coincidentally, I took a break from writing a reflection on Romans 12:1-8 to check out YAR. Brian, I appreciate your thoughtful and passionate exhortation for young radicals to remember that nonconformity applies to every part of our lives, and to all the powers of this world.

  2. DevanD Says:

    Brian,

    But what does that nonconformity look like? bonnets, plaid, and pie? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I look great in plaid and I love apple pie. But nonconformity doesn’t seem to take a shape in a lot of Mennonite churches that seems relevant.

    Would you mind elaborating what nonconformity is?

  3. Karl Says:

    Amish don’t have exclusive rights to nonconformity. Here are some ways we choose to nonconform to the ways of the world (consumerism, social class, ideological polarization):
    -hanging our laundry on the line (our neighbor asked my wife if our dryer was broken)
    -riding bicycles and having only one old car (we live in northern Indiana)
    -shopping at Goodwill
    -cooking from scratch basically all the time
    -having a garden patch
    -home canning
    -composting
    -living on the same block with people of color
    -praying before meals

    To keep my humility intact, here are some conformist confessions:
    -I recently gave $5 to a political candidate, which was $5 more than what I put in the offering plate that week.
    -I own a new computer and a digital camera
    -I have a cell phone
    -I get easily sucked into Internet and TV
    -I only have relationships with the white neighbors.

    Some Mennonites conform to the world more than others. In my mind, we could use a little more admonishment from the church for our conformity. I don’t want bishops in plain coats telling me how to dress. I want articles in the church press and sermons on the importance of simple living and staying separate from worldly politics.

    May God help us all as we choose a different path from the world.

  4. Brian Hamilton Says:

    Bonnets, plaid, and pie isn’t terribly far off the mark, I’d say–as a community-wide way of life countering rampant materialism and sexualized self-celebration and incompetence in the home. How is that not relevant? I won’t actually advocate a return to the old Menno dress code, but I think that’s the kind of nonconformity we should be thinking about: visible and against broad social sin. Refusal to participate in war works by a similar principle. More basically than that, my recommendation is simply that we guard carefully against political assimilation.

    Most important, though, is theological nonconformity: that we give praise to God, to Christ the Lord and Son of God together with the Holy Spirit, that we gather as beggars to share in his Supper and are given to God’s grace in baptism. It’s only the goodness of God that truly passes judgment on the world’s evil, so the only true nonconformity finds its rest in God. I mean these as quite concrete political acts: coming together to sing the doxology, practice communion, preaching the gospel. For a deeper exploration of the political dimensions of Christian worship itself, I’d recommend William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist (which is particularly situated in the church in Pinochet’s Chile), or its smaller and more manageable cousin, Theopolitical Imagination.

  5. RonL Says:

    Nonconformity is like being a monk, only you can get married and have children. I used to attend a Mennonite Church and there was a former Catholic monk there and he said that being a Mennonite was sort of like being a monk.

    Alternatively, nonconformity can look more like a cult, where people are not able to think freely. Where you are required to conform to a certain idea of nonconformity. Maybe that’s why Mennos have gotten away from the nonconformity thing in recent decades- it felt too confining.

    So, the challenge is to find a kind of nonconformity that works, and frees, rather than imprisons the individual, and radically follows Jesus’ life and teachings.

    We may have thrown away the baby with the bathwater in becoming more like the world, when we were just trying to liberate ourselves from what felt like a confining, rather than a liberating environment. There may have been aspects of our predecessors’ faith that we need to retain as we head into the future, rather than reinventing the wheel. Maybe our predecessors possessed some wisdom that we could use in this. Anyone for a slice of shoefly pie?

  6. Brian Hamilton Says:

    Karl, thanks for the list of particular paths of nonconformity. I’ll repeat again, though, that I think theological nonconformity is what really matters, which includes all those things but also transcends them. We refuse to conform to fallenness itself, which is a condition of rebellion against God–so the shape of nonconformity is eminently doxological.

    Ron, you’re right to point out the excessive confinement that paved the way for Mennonite rejection of a certain kind of nonconformity. I have to admit, though–I wonder sometimes if the clamor for ‘individual freedom’ is not precisely the kind of conformity the church ought to resist.

  7. Keith Swartzendruber Says:

    Well said, but we must remain wary to not be non-conformist for the sake of being different. Non-conformity that is shaped by conforming to the life and teaching of Christ is what we are looking for. Just disagreeing with everyone is a slippery slope to nihilism.

    Indeed we have been called to help others understand our non-conformist attitudes on peace and justice. Other denominations seek our experience to help them understand better how to live with Christ’s call.

    The question is, how do you get everyone to conform to non-conformity and reject their now forged political identifications. My goal would be to get more people to not identify with any political party rather than get more republicans or democrats. But arguably we are dealing with a huge monster that has been at working slowly changing our churches for the past 50 years or so. Do we have the means to combat it and the endurance to stick to it?

  8. SteveK Says:

    While theological nonconformity is an issue, for Jesus, what He pointed out was an ethical/social non-conformity.

    First of all, we should have a different ethic of economics. We should recognize that the collecting of stuff is opposed to the ethic of Jesus– Matt 6:19-24. Secondly, we should emphasize the giving to those who are in need and not to those who already have what they need (Which is extremely non-conformist just between Thanksgiving and New Years).

    Socially, to be like Jesus is to associate and welcome the outcast and rejected of society. Our churches should look like God-Haters’ Anonymous, welcoming even athiests, agnostics and all sorts of sinners and unbelievers. We should be shaped by outreach, not just have is on a list of things to do.

    The Mennonite church doesn’t look like this. And according to the sociological report by Paul Kenagy, we are becoming less economically and socially non-conformist.

    Even the focus on those of differing sexual orientation is conformist. I’m not saying it’s bad, but its just what our culture is doing now. When are we going to set the trends, as Jesus did, instead of follow them?

    Steve K

  9. somasoul Says:

    As a new mennonite I like this topic alot. I came to a mennonite church back in June and loved the sermon. I was surprised though to find that Mennonites are a lot like……….well, everyone else.

    We have one family that dresses in traditional garb. And the wife convinced my wife to cover her head. My wife uses a bandana……..a red one……I hope the crips don’t kill her.

    The mennonites tried, I believe, to wittle their beliefs down to core Christian beliefs. And they take that message, the core tenets of Christ, and don’t require anything else. But this has dampened the core message of Christ, I think, because we’ve come to accept things that aren’t irreligious but don’t serve the message of Christ at all.

    We accept T-Shirts. Admittedly, not anti-Christian, but nor do they further the message. (No, stupid WWJD Tees don’t help evangelize people)

    Radio TV. Some of it expresses core Christian messages, most of it doesn’t. None of it really helps bring Christ to people.

    I like the message. I wish the rural old-skool Mennonites could have integrated into urban areas without foresaking their heritage. Unforntunatly it doesn’t appear to be the case.

  10. Werschevsky Says:

    While I am new to the study of the Bible and Mennonite theology, from what I understand it seems that Jesus was quite a radical and that traditional categories of political “left” and “right” are both incompatible with his teaching. Perhaps I’m missing something regarding Jesus, but it’s pretty obvious that both political parties in the States are bent on maintaining a status quo of: wars and world domination, nihilism, selfishness, destruction of God’s creation, repression of liberties, worship of Mammon, etc. From what I know, Jesus would not fit into either political party, or even support representative democracy itself. Perhaps a direct democracy (anarchy) or withering away of centralized institutions other than the worship of God (a sort of Christian communism or communalism) seem more appropriate–which would mean voting Republican or Democrat is a betrayal of one’s faith. Which, of course, means non-conformity with existing institutions is a necessity.

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